- “Where thou art, that is home.” – Emily Dickenson
- “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou
What’s in those backpacks, anyway?
By Paula Heath, Teen Feed Advocate
At Teen Feed, every night, those of us volunteers who greet and sign in the youth for dinner must ask each whether they have, in their packs, any weapons to leave with us while they are ‘in program,’ eating their meal with the group. The most serious item I’ve seen was a Swiss army knife. I have heard from others about a cardboard sword; numchucks; an over-long pole. But these are peaceful young people.
Homeless youth almost always have a backpack with them as they walk by on the sidewalks of the U District, or play at anonymity in a sunny spot in the park. There are daypacks, external frame backpacks for longer-term needs, messenger bags, duffels and even a diaper bag for those with babies. No two bags are alike, of course. Some were once school-kid day packs – colorful, or with bold patterns like hounds tooth checks, and not really roomy enough to carry your whole life.
Others are major backpacks: external-frame; extended-trip packs with 5500 cubic inches of volume; 30+ inches high. You can definitely see the entirety of your possessions fitting inside.
When you have no permanent base that you can call home, you have to have with you not just the important physical-needs stuff (tooth and body care; condoms; matches; ID; bus passes; cat or dog food if you have a pet) – but also, the stuff that’s important to sustain your soul and spirit.
Clothes, undergarments, and sleeping bags could take up most of the space. But you’d allow plenty of room for favorite DVDs and paperbacks, personal journals, and precious batteries. Some, who enjoy making their own clothing, will have a collection of fabric scraps for future patchwork garments.
So, what’s in a backpack are personal items, symbols of simple human need (the practical) and emotions, hopes and dreams (the spiritually satisfying). In other words, the same things you would keep – and treasure – in your purse, family album, briefcase or home.
“In the end we’re all just people.” – Elisabeth Moore, a Teen Feed Advocate
By Paula Heath, Teen Feed Advocate
Behind the scenes of our family life, my mother was always volunteering – for the animal shelter, the American Cancer Society, the recycling center, or taking baskets of food to the lower income families on the island. With her as my lighthouse, I look back at my own volunteerism and see that it is surely inadequate. When I have volunteered, however, it has been in children’s hospitals or with teenage unwed mothers, or wards of the court. And I loved it.
There are a lot of volunteer opportunities that match my interests. For example, I have Parkinson’s disease, and there are numerous organizations devoted to it. But I wanted to stay with young people, to see meaning in the lives of others, rather than dwelling on my own future, and so I found Teen Feed and the group of homeless young people who pass through the doors.
One year in my own youth, when I was about 22, I was “homeless.” I had completed the transition – or so I thought – from needing my parents for guidance and financial assistance, to living and working independently. But I was a failure, at least in my own eyes, and lost my bearings. I gave up all friends and family connections to drive around the country with my two dogs. I cut off communications, looking back, probably because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t hold it together and be a grown up.
What was it like? Winter mornings in Denver, for example, when the sparkling, delicate frost patterns on the slanted window of the Mustang fastback could fascinate me for hours, I washed up in the cold water of the ladies room at the Texaco near the neighborhood where I parked overnight.
This period lasted a year or so, after which I pretty much returned to working-girl life, back in LA. So I have come to believe, personally, that there may be more than one kind of ‘’homelessness.”
Here is what I have learned at Teen Feed: Homeless youth live in shelters, cars, parks, group housing. They sofa surf, they sometimes see family members. Some may have jobs, although it is sometimes hard to keep them for very long. They are extroverts and introverts, and they are very creative and hope for outlets for their talents. There are conservative dressers, seeking wall-flower clothes at the shelters, thrift shops, and churches. And there are travelers, with piercings, tattoos, plugs, chains, personalized, handmade, layered outfits. And everything in between.
I volunteer with Teen Feed to get to know these young people, to help them if I can, with encouragement and by example, and to learn more about life through listening to their stories about the challenges they face every day. Finding commonalities in interests and in personal histories is deeply rewarding.
Teen Feed has been working with the United Way’s Volunteer Improvement Program to more effectively use our tremendous volunteers. Take a look at the article about VIP and Teen Feed in the Puget Sound Business Journal.
If you’re interested in joining our Teen Feed volunteer team, email email@example.com!
Elisabeth Moore, a Teen Feed Advocate, writes an article for Real Change answering the question:
“What was it like for a student from Bush School to work with homeless youth?”
In the end we’re all just people.
While being stuck in traffic or at a red light one of my favorite pastimes is to sticker gaze. This is especially satisfying given the social, environmental, and political consciousness that embodies the Pacific Northwest. Everyone seems to wear their views on their sleeves, proudly displaying their political puns or environmental slogans; even organizations’ logos adorn the bumpers and windows of our cars. It was on one of these cars’ stickers “think globally act locally” that resonated with me and eventually lead me to Teen Feed.
I had already worked with advocates of animal and human rights, environmental causes, disease research awareness, refugee assimilation, and attended more protests, marches, and rallies than I can remember. I started thinking locally, very locally. It was then that I found Teen Feed, a component of the University District Service Providers Alliance (UDSPA). It was a perfect match. Less than five minutes away from my home was an entire community, an untouched microcosm, I had never engaged.
It was intimidating; some of the homeless youth were older than me in years and experience, so I stood guarded behind a kitchen service wall serving meals and being protected from their sometimes harsh and sometimes gracious stares. My only interactions with youth were non-conversation starters like, “salad or fruit?” or “Is that enough?” So when I was asked by one of my supervisors to work as an advocate, sharing meals and conversations with the youth, I was in a mixed state of excitement to be out of the kitchens and nervousness to be actually working with youth directly; I could no longer hide behind the service wall.
My first meal was similar to my first day at a new school; I went down the line getting my food and then scouted out a place to sit. I didn’t know much more of youth’s identities than a “salad person” or a “more cheese person”; but I swallowed my hesitance, tried to look composed and took a seat. I repeated the words I had been told when confiding my concerns with another advocate, “they might be homeless, but we’re all just people.” After a few rounds of that chorus I was peeled out of my own head when the youth sitting across from me said, “Today was a weird day” and the ice cracked. From there on it only got easier. The following meals were filled with conversations about everything from SNL skits to politics and religion. It didn’t have to be deep it just had to be a connection. So youth continued from celebrity gossip to guilty TV and movie pleasures and by the second week I had met more compelling people in two weeks than I had met in a lifetime.
And so I stay. My project is now wrapping up yet I am finding myself ready to go to Teen Feed even on my days off. I feel obligated to the people I have met. I think about them and their stories when listening to a friend complain about having “nothing to wear” when I know people who actually have nothing to wear. So my advice to you is “act locally”, the first step to bettering the world is bettering your community. You don’t need to adopt a child from China, there are orphans here, and in my case, I didn’t need to fly to Palestine to work with displaced people, they are right in my neighborhood.
Here at Teen Feed, we say all the time that our work with youth on the streets would not be possible without the hundreds of dedicated community members who volunteer, donate, cook food, send encouragement, and spread the word about homeless youth.
Without our newest partner, the UW Hillel, we would not be able to serve meals to youth seven nights a week. Period. So it is with tremendous appreciation that we introduce the great folks at the Hillel to Teen Feed!
Several months ago, the staff and students of Hillel agreed to host the seventh night of Teen Feed. Every Sunday night, Hillel opens up their exceptional kitchen and warm dining hall to the homeless youth and young adults in the University District. The dining hall is bright and welcoming – with walls of windows on two sides and lovely landscaping bordering the building. The kitchen is certified Kosher, and Hillel has graciously provided a representative from the Vaad to ensure Teen Feed Volunteers are following all the kosher requirements. It is our newest partnership with a faith community site, and we could not be more thrilled!
Thank you Hillel!
On June 5th, Teen Feed served homeless youth a healthy and safe dinner for the first time on a Saturday! We now offer support to meet basic needs, build strong relationships, and ally with homeless youth as they meet their future off the streets every night of the week.
Great appreciation to our Meal Teams, our Advocate Volunteers, and all the community members and donors who help make it possible. Here are a few photos from this historic night:[imagebrowser id=2]
Starting this Saturday, Teen Feed will begin serving healthy dinners to homeless youth every single night of the year.
For many years, Teen Feed has served homeless youth every Sunday through Thursday night. In January of 2010, we added Friday nights. Only six months later, on June 5th, we will expand yet again to create a seamless continuum of care for youth on the streets.
On any given night, Teen Feed serves 35 – 70 homeless youth a healthy dinner in a safe environment. This effort is only possible because of the :
- Over 400 volunteers who serve as meal teams – purchasing, cooking, serving and cleaning up a meal for 60 youth,
- Five faith community spaces who host us – offering up their kitchens and their hearts,
- Foundations, Trusts, Companies and individuals who give money – believing in the futures of our young people,
- Advocates and Weeklies who give their time in conversation with youth over dinner,
- Partner agencies in the University District who shelter and support youth on the streets, working in tandem to ensure the needs are met, and
- Community members who spread the word.
What this broad community of support communicates to youth on the streets, in so many small ways, is that their life is valuable. It might just be mac and cheese, steamed broccoli, and brownies – but the difference it makes is profound.
Click here for the Teen Feed Location Map. Thank you for joining the effort to offer, build, and ally – and stay tuned for news from our newest night of Teen Feed!
University Street Ministry is now Teen Feed. We’ve changed our name!
Over the last 20 years, we have worked with hundreds of volunteers, faith communities, and most importantly – homeless youth – who have come to know and trust us as University Street Ministry. But we decided that it is time to move on, to grow, and to change.
Why change our name?
Put simply, we wanted a name that better reflects who we are now and the work we do today. Our work began in 1986 when nurses from the University of Washington noticed that homeless youth were entering the emergency room severely malnourished. These nurses teamed up with community members and churches in the University District, and Teen Feed was born.
Over the years, what began as one night of food for hungry youth has blossomed into seven nights of healthy dinners, every week of the year. We’ve added Support Coordination and Street Outreach to help homeless youth at Teen Feed find their path from the streets. And we’ve built a strong network of community around youth who have otherwise been forgotten – nurses, church congregations, synagogues, schools, and so many individuals who care deeply and are moved to act.
On a matter-of-fact level, University Street Ministry has been somewhat of a challenging name. While we work in close tandem with volunteers who are people of faith, our work with youth on the streets has no religious or proselytizing component. Youth over the years have been understandably wary (until they get to know us!) that we may have some ulterior motive. Community members have asked us what church we are associated with.
And then some people just called us Teen Feed already!
We put a lot of thought into it.
The name Teen Feed places the volunteers and homeless youth at the center of what we do – because Teen Feed, the name of our largest program, is what youth and volunteers have called us for years. Teen Feed is clear, sharp, and easy to say. Teen Feed has tremendous community recognition.
The name Teen Feed reflects our history and our future. The community began Teen Feed, starting with just one night of meals and adding nights as they were able. It was after this that University Street Ministry was formed as a nonprofit to support the meal program. To place all of our work – Street Outreach, Support Coordination, and Meals – under the name Teen Feed is an exciting and cohesive way to approach the work ahead.
Teen Feed has an instant connotation. You have at least one picture of the work we do, and your your heart is captured to hear more, to do more.
Teen Feed is what the youth and community call us, and it is where the vast majority of these stakeholders connect with us first. We’ll continue to do the work that offers support to meet basic needs, builds strong relationships, and allies with homeless youth as they meet their future off the street. And although University Street Ministry still slips out from time to time, we already feel at home in our new name.
Teen Feed: Offer. Build. Ally.